Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature, public health

NC Senate caucus insinuates Cooper’s $2.5 million request to address GenX is “simply public relations”

State Senate Republicans, in part responsible for enacting deep budget cuts for environmental programs, seem reluctant to grant Gov. Roy Cooper’s emergency funding request to deal with the chemical GenX in drinking water. Instead, in a letter sent yesterday to the governor, the Republican caucus questioned whether “any additional appropriations could make a meaningful difference in water quality and public safety in the lower Cape Fear region” and if Cooper was simply engaging in “public relations.”

The letter was signed by Sens. Bill Cook, Trudy Wade, Andy Wells, Rick Gunn, Michael Lee, Norm Sanderson and Bill Rabon. They asked for a response by Aug. 14; the legislative session reconvenes Aug. 18.

Earlier this week, Cooper, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen and Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan unveiled a proposal of how they would spend an estimated $2.5 million on not only GenX but other water quality and related public health issues.

Photograph of Senator Bill Cook of coastal North Carolina

Sen. Bill Cook (Photo: NC General Assembly)

In the letter, the caucus posed 13 questions about the administration’s handling of the GenX crisis. A few of the questions were legitimate, such as whether Chemours should be required to pay for long-term water sampling. But others appeared to be leading or had already been answered via press releases and media reports.

Among them is the decision of the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen to drastically reduce the public health goal of GenX in drinking water. Earlier this month, Cohen announced at a press conference in Wilmington that her department adjusted the levels from 70,000 parts per trillion to 140 parts per trillion. The reason, Cohen said, is because the EPA had initially provided only one study on which to base the goal; later federal officials gave DEQ a second study that informed the decision to reduce the acceptable amount.

GOP caucus members also wanted to know why DEQ has not issued a notice of violation under the Clean Water Act to Chemours, responsible for the GenX discharge. NCPW has reported that a federal consent decree filed as part of a lawsuit in West Virginia states that GenX can be discharged into public waterways under the Clean Water Act as long as it’s a “byproduct” of the manufacturing process, not the manufacture of GenX itself.

Sen. Trudy Wade (Photo: NC General Assembly)

Part of the $2.5 million appropriation would fund an additional 16 positions within DEQ’s water resources division. This year’s budget eliminated 16.75 positions department-wide, following a pattern of continued cuts that have handcuffed the agency. There is a two-year backlog for reviewing wastewater discharge permits.

Republican caucus members responded to the request by saying:

“We know the department currently employs many individuals that perform non-regulatory functions not involving the implementation of federal or state environmental quality programs. An example of this is the “Office of Innovation” that was just created by Secretary Regan. Rather than using taxpayer funds to create additional government employees, could some of these individuals performing non-regulatory duties be shifted to assist with the permitting backlog and other regulatory functions that have been neglected?”

According to the DEQ website, two people work as policy and innovation advisors: Mary Penny Kelley, whose position in an early version of the budget was eliminated; and Jennifer Mundt. Both advisors are tasked with developing innovative policies and solutions to environmental and energy issues. As for the reality of shifting employees from “non-regulatory” duties to regulatory ones, it’s possible that the workers would not have the skills and expertise to do those jobs, particularly if they require a science or engineering degree.

Earlier this year, the Star-News in Wilmington reported on a study conducted by two EPA scientists and an NC State University professor that GenX, an unregulated, emerging contaminant had been detected in drinking water in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties. The source of the chemical was upstream, the Chemours plant in Fayetteville, which had been discharging GenX into the Lower Cape Fear. GenX is an unregulated, “emerging” contaminant. That means the EPA has not conducted sufficient safety studies to set a maximum contaminant level for the chemical in drinking water.

There are hundreds of such contaminants, including 1,4-dioxane, found in the Haw River and the Pittsboro drinking water supply, and Chromium 6, detected in private wells near coal ash plants. The decision whether to regulate a contaminant is highly politicized, and the EPA has been criticized by the Government Accountability Office for failing to expedite scientific review.

Environment, Legislature, public health

DEQ, DHHS reveal their $2.5 million emergency budget request to address GenX, contaminants in drinking water

 

DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen (Photo: DHHS)

Two top state officials have asked lawmakers to appropriate $2.5 million in emergency funds to help their respective agencies address unregulated, emerging contaminants, such as GenX, in drinking water.

Secretaries Mandy Cohen of the Department of Health and Human Services and Michael Regan of the Department of Environmental Quality sent a letter to Rep. Ted Davis Jr. outlining the request. Davis is a Republican representing New Hanover County.

Davis could not be reached immediately for comment.

GenX has been found in drinking water in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties, a result of discharge of the compound from the Chemours plant in Fayetteville into the Lower Cape Fear River.

Chemicals from the same family, known as PFOS, have also been detected in Greensboro’s water system, according to a nationwide database compiled by the Environmental Working Group.

DHHS is asking for $530,839 to develop a Water Health and Safety unit within the Division of Public Health. This would include four positions, plus other resources for educating the public and analyzing health data.

These are the requested positions, according to the agency:

Medical risk assessor, a physician who has experience with poisoning and environmental toxicity;

PhD Toxicologist, to research and review available studies and develop strategies to lessen harmful health effects;

Informatics/ epidemiologist, to organize data and perform high-level analysis to determine the causes of harm to human health;

Health educator, to establish adequate public notifications and provide educational materials and briefings to the public.

DEQ Secretary Michael Regan (Photo: DEQ)

DEQ, which has been decimated by budget cuts and the elimination of 70 jobs since 2013, has requested $2,049,569, detailed here:

  • Funding for long-term water sampling for GenX at a cost of $14,000 per week for a full year. Currently the cost is being funded by Chemours, which is responsible for the contamination, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and private labs, but only temporarily.
  • An additional 16 positions within the Division of Water Resources: Four engineers, three environmental specialists, two environmental senior specialists, two hydrogeologists, two program consultants, a business technology Analyst and two Chemist III positions.
    “These water quality scientists and experts would work with local governments to identify where contaminants occur and where they came from,” the letter says.

Money would also be used to move the permits from paper copies to an electronic database. This would integrate wastewater, drinking water and groundwater information and allow for easy searches.

The most recent DEQ budget cut 16 positions agency-wide; it also directed Secretary Regan to find $1.9 million in savings within the department. If lawmakers approve the funding when they reconvene in September, this appropriation, although not restoring positions outside of Water Resources, would still allow DEQ to tackle its backlog of wastewater discharge permits.

The review time for these permits can take as long as two years, the letter states. “Adding experts would give us more thorough and timely review … and would strengthen the Division of Water Resources so it can address unregulated compounds in the water discharge permitting program and allow more frequent sampling and faster evaluation.”

“The EPA is not up to speed,” Harrison said. “We don’t know what these chemicals do. We don’t have a handle on it. And we shouldn’t continue to expose our citizens to these chemicals.”

The proposed legislation would also direct the Environmental Review Commission, composed of a dozen lawmakers, to study whether there should be an exemption to the so-called “Hardison amendment.”  This amendment prevents the state from enacting stricter standards than the federal government.

Pricey Harrison,  a Guilford County Democrat, has long opposed the Hardison measure. “EPA regulations should be a floor, not the ceiling,” she said. “Every state and local area is different; we need local control.”

Conservative lawmakers have often hamstrung DEQ’s efforts to employ stricter standards than the EPA’s. Most recently, during the one-day legislative session last week, lawmakers introduced a new version of House Bill 162, which seemed to quash any hopes of DEQ to enact permanent rules regarding GenX.

“We need to rethink these restrictions,” Harrison said. “DEQ has been handcuffed by the legislature.”

Even in the case of “serious and unforeseen threats,” the bill reads, DEQ could not make permanent rules stricter than the federal government’s. Currently, there are no federal standards for GenX and other “emerging contaminants,” such as Chromium 6, a byproduct of coal ash and also a naturally occurring compound, and 1.4-dioxane, found in the Haw River.

The bill, under protest from Harrison, did not advance to a floor vote. Instead, Speaker Tim Moore sent the measure back to the House rules committee. It could be voted on in September.

 

 

Environment, Legislature

The quarterback sneak of House Bill 162: Measure would stymie DEQ’s ability to strengthen environmental rules

House Bill 162 began its life last February as a wonky aggregation of technical corrections. But by summer, the measure hasdmorphed into yet another attempt by lawmakers to curb the authority of the NC Department of Environmental Quality. (Because cutting 16-plus jobs and more than $2 million from the agency’s budget isn’t effective enough?)

The annotated version of the bill is below (see pages 6-8). In essence, DEQ could not make permanent rules that would be more stringent than the federal government’s, aka, the EPA’s —- even in the case of “serious and unforeseen threats.” While existing legislation already suffocates DEQ’s rule-making powers, this measure would up the ante.

If you need an example of such a threat, look no further than the GenX drinking water crisis. It’s serious. It’s unforeseen. And there are no federal rules governing maximum allowable amounts in drinking water. So ostensibly, DEQ could make a temporary rule setting maximum limits of GenX, but the agency would be prohibited from making those rules permanent. And given the recalcitrance of the EPA to strengthen any regulations, it could be years before the feds issue rules regarding emerging contaminants like GenX.

This legislation clearly favors industry over the workaday folks. In addition, no agency could enact a rule that has a financial impact of $100 million or more. Environmentally speaking, it’s easy to ring up $100 million in expenses because it’s costly to clean up polluted sites, even to bare minimum industrial standards. And the bill doesn’t account for financial benefits of a rule. So if the rule produced $200 million in benefits but $100 million in costs, then that $100 million net benefit would still be a dealbreaker.

The bill was headed for a full House vote when Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, protested. She noted that this bill, which last anyone had heard was being hammered out in a conference committee in June, had appeared on the special session calendar at the 11th hour. At 8:15 last night, House Speaker Tim Moore pulled the bill from the floor and shipped it back to House rules. And there it will lie, until next time.

House Bill 162-1 by LisaSorg on Scribd

Courts & the Law, Legislature

Time to stop the foot-dragging and get serious about correcting NC’s legislative districts (video)

While the top news story of the day may be Sen. John McCain’s ‘No’ vote ending the GOP’s effort to repeal Obamacare, don’t miss our story over on the main Policy Watch site about Thursday’s court hearing on redrawing the state House and Senate districts, which  were unconstitutionally and racially gerrymandered.

Courts and law reporter Melissa Boughton details how the U.S. district judges hearing the case scolded legislative leaders for their lack of action in drawing new maps. Here’s a short excerpt from Boughton’s story:

[ U.S. District Judge Catherine] Eagles agreed: “You don’t seem serious, so what’s our assurance that you’re serious?”

Strach respectfully disagreed and said lawmakers had already appointed members to each redistricting committee, submitted a timeline to the court and met to discuss strategy and goals.

“Somebody who takes it seriously has a plan to do it right,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing.”

He argued that any shorter of a timeline wouldn’t allow for proper comment from lawmakers involved and the public.

Eagles wasn’t buying his argument.

“But you’ve created those problems by not doing this over the last year,” she said. “That’s the legislature’s fault.”

This weekend on News & Views with Chris Fitzsimon we sit down with state Rep. Grier Martin to discuss what should happen next with the legislative maps. Click below for a preview of our radio interview:

Look for much more discussion about correcting the gerrymandered maps when the General Assembly reconvenes next week in spacial session.

In the meantime, read Melissa Boughton’s full story here.

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

In signing wind moratorium and executive order promoting wind energy, Gov. Cooper tries to have cake, eat it too

(Illustration: Creative Commons)

House Bill 589, a promising renewable energy bill until it was saddled with a last-minute wind farm moratorium, is now law. Gov. Roy Cooper signed the bill today.

From the governor’s press release:

A strong renewable energy industry is good for our environment and our economy. This bill is critical for the future of significant increases in our already booming solar industry. I strongly oppose the ugly, last-minute, politically motivated wind moratorium. However, this fragile and hard fought solar deal will be lost if I veto this legislation and that veto is sustained.

However, the governor softened the blow of the 18-month wind farm moratorium by also enacting an Executive Order No. 11, which Cooper said in a press release, “directs DEQ to continue recruiting wind energy investments and to move forward with all of the behind the scenes work involved with bringing wind energy projects online, including reviewing permits and conducting pre-application review for prospective sites. I want wind energy facilities to come online quickly when this moratorium expires so our economy and our environment can continue to benefit.”

The order also directs the NC Department of Environmental Quality to work with the Department of Administration to conduct a feasibility study regarding renewable energy and energy efficiency projects on state-owned land and property.

The renewables bill was a product of year-long negotiations among utilities and the solar industry. Not until the final days of the session did Sen. Harry Brown, a longtime opponent of wind energy, tack a moratorium onto the end of the bill. He and other wind energy opponents claimed that the farms, with their turbines as tall as 600 feet, would conflict with military training exercises. However, no one currently serving with the military with the authority to negotiate those conflicts publicly spoke against the moratorium.

The moratorium would have lasted for four years, if not for pushback from Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, who represents several northeastern counties, where these farms would be built.